Ways to find ideas (for lessons, presentations, essays…)

As a teacher who assigns plenty of presentation and essay tasks to my student, I have long been convinced that freedom of choice is important. Very often, I let the students choose their own topic to write or present about; the theory being that if they are working on a topic that interests them, the results will be better and more interesting for me to read/listen to, and more inspiring for others, e.g. student audience for a presentation, etc.

But I often come up against ‘I don’t know what to write about’ or ‘I don’t have any ideas that are relevant’. This is rather frustrating for me as a teacher, but then also filters into my own lesson planning. And I’m sure other teachers have the same issue – what topic can I choose for a lesson? I want to be interested in it so that I am enthusiastic, but I also want to find something that will ‘grab’ the learners so that they are motivated, too.

This post is a quick list of ways anyone can find an idea … students for their essays, .. teachers for their lessons, … etc! I’m coming at this from an EGAP background, but the basic premise is that things that are around us every day would make good topics for our work, if only we weren’t too busy to notice them or to spend a minute thinking about how they would fit to the task ahead of us.

So here they are … my suggestions of ways to find ideas of topics to write/present/talk/teach about!

1) Read the TV guide. 

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you should procrastinate and watch TV until an idea magically occurs to you! But trust me… look at a TV guide (magazine, online, on the TV itself), particularly looking at channels that often show documentaries, and just scan the titles of the programmes. If you find something that interests you, of course you can watch it, but even that might not be necessary. Often channels show documentaries that are related to something that is currently going on, something up-to-date. Just count the number of shows focusing on Brazil in the run-up to the World Cup!  These are often topics that lend themselves nicely to presentations, essays, lessons, etc, especially when they look at an ‘old’ topic from a new, specific perspective. I once read the programme list of N24 (A German news/documentary channel) from just one weekend, and looked for topics related to an English-speaking country (the one rule I do set my students). I found 22 different topics! They ranged from how the Titanic could have avoided sinking, to youth gangs in the USA, to how to land a jet-fighter on an aircraft-carrier, to the first prisons in Australia. With the wide variety of topics, there’s likely to be something that inspires you, gives you an idea to work on.

2) Google (Scholar) your interests

Many students seem to think that to be ‘academic’ a topic has to be somehow serious (read: boring!). But you’d often be surprised how much academic discussion is going on about topics most people would consider ‘unacademic’. For me, a topic can be academic if you approach it in an academic way – critically evaluating the evidence/support for various viewpoints, or assessing the significance of various factors, etc. I have a colleague who is just slightly obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But guess what, studying literature and media proved to her that Buffy is in fact the subject of a lot of academic discussion and research. Simply stick ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, or whatever your interest is, into Google Scholar ( http://scholar.google.com/ )or a similar (academic!) search engine, and you will often be rewarded with links to articles investigating aspects of your interest from various perspectives, using different approaches, etc – et voila, an interesting idea!

3) Question Jokes

I don’t actually know whether it’s true, but we often hear that journalists approach their news items asking the ‘w-questions’: where?, when?, what?, who?, whom?, why?, (how?). If you apply these questions to jokes or other funny anecdotes, you might be able to discover an interesting topic for your lesson, essay, etc. Through my linguists’ eyes, there is an awful lot of material about! Take the books or websites that make fun of incorrect and amusing translations of signs in foreign countries – for me, the questions always arise as to who translated this and why, what led to the mistakes, what was the influence of the native language, what would they need to know about English to get it right, etc. Even jokes based on stereotypes can lead to interesting social/cultural studies investigations: why is this amusing? Where did the stereotype come from? Is the stereotype only found in some contexts (in comparison to their own context)? Is there any truth to the stereotype? And so on. One of my previous blog posts arose from a funny situation: a colleague made some odd, incorrect but very funny lexical mistakes… and this lead me to look at the organisation and workings of the mental lexicon. (See https://clareseltcompendium.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/everyday-examples-of-mental-lexicon-representations/ )

4) Argue with news headlines

Open a newspaper or news website and just skim the headlines. Now pick one that stands out to you, read the article if you like, and try (just for fun) to disagree and argue with everything you read. You might end up thinking: Why did they do that? That was a silly thing to do! That’s not the right solution! Who would support that? etc. This will prompt you to highlight controversies or debatable points made, and perhaps provide an idea that you can write/present/teach about. Just looking through the BBC News Magazine site this morning (see: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine/), I find “France’s Flaws: Why the country isn’t the democratic créme de la créme”, or “Spaniard takes time off work to watch World Cup” – I think there are plenty of points you could come up with that take a negative or critical stance here, and then you’d have the foundation for a discussion which could be used in whatever task you’re currently trying to get inspired for. Try also to find support for your arguments and criticisms – read up on some background or find other sources of information relevant to the topic, and there you have it… the good idea for your work!

5) Browse Social Networks

Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social networking platforms you use, can also be a source of inspiration. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a couple of people on your friends list who basically to your ‘finding an idea’ ground work for you! They post videos, news excerpts, podcasts, and the like, which are interesting because they are new, funny, controversial, etc – pick any one of these and delve a bit deeper into the content, question it, critically assess it, and let it lead you to a specific idea for your work. Just recently, an ex-colleague posted http://www.vox.com/2014/6/4/5776804/note-taking-by-hand-versus-laptop in our Facebook students group and sparked a lively discussion where different students and teachers posted their views, their evidence, anecdotes, etc. Or this one, posted by a student in World-Cup-mood: http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2014/06/germany_2014_world_cup_is_joachim_l_w_s_squad_too_nice_to_win_in_brazil.2.html  Many people criticise social networks as distractions and hide-outs for procrastinators; but if you use them well, they can actually inspire you for the task ahead!


So … those were a few of my ideas on how to find new ideas! I’ll stop here so that you don’t procrastinate any further by spending more time reading my blog … go forth and delve into the rich world of ideas that are all around you! Who knows… maybe my next post will have to be about ‘I have too many ideas and don’t know which one to work on’ 🙂



4 thoughts on “Ways to find ideas (for lessons, presentations, essays…)

  1. Hello… I came up with some more (general) ideas how to help students find topics.
    1) Emotional approach: What was the last time the student felt any (positive or negative) emotions about a certain topic? Let them brainstorm and then encourage them to pick their favourite topic (or a topic that can be shown in class rather than private things).
    2) Visional approach: Has a student seen or experienced a scenery (a documentary, a happening, etc.) that he felt surprised / curious / … about? That could be their topic. Maybe their hobbies…
    3) paradoxical suggestion: let them think about their difficulty to find topics, and make that a topic itself (if possible; e.g. “about the difficulty to decide” [in a certain context, e.g. study subjects]).
    4) Encourage them to ask peers who succeeded in finding a topic, rather than dealing with all of them by yourself… (maybe it is good when students finally experience freedom… it is their task to find a topic, after all, not the teacher’s.)
    5) creative limitation: give a broad, vague topic and let the student fill it with precise topics he/she wants to write about / deliver a presentation. Example: “grammar mistakes in school”, more precise, “in grade 5 of German ‘Gymnasien'” – or something.
    That’s it, hope it was useful. 😉


    1. Hello Lea. Thank you for your comments. Your ideas sound good ideas for what a teacher could do in a classroom to try to get learners (possible younger / general English?) to find ideas for a piece of work. My post was more geared to teachers finding lesson ideas, or older students finding ideas for EGAP essays/presentations, but maybe some people will be able to employ your ideas there too – have you used these ideas before in this kind of situation? Your last point reminds me of another post I wrote recently: https://clareseltcompendium.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/how-to-write-effective-classroom-materials/


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